Jason Smith, a school principal for 14 years, met his daughter, Raven Whitaker-Smith, in 2015 when she was sitting outside his office after being suspended from the sixth grade.
"She was just this sweet looking, little innocent child sitting there, kind of defeated," Smith told "Good Morning America." "I asked her, 'What's going on?' and she said that she had thrown a cup of yogurt at lunch and had been suspended and was waiting to be picked up."
Smith said that when he asked Whitaker-Smith, now 20, if she would ever throw food at a restaurant, she told him she had never eaten in one.
At the time, Whitaker-Smith was living in a group home after being bounced around in the foster care system for most of her life.
"At that point, I had felt like she just needed a hand, needed help," Smith said. "I recognized that she needed something to go in her favor, maybe for once, that it hadn't gone in her favor in the past, but she just needed somebody to help her."
Smith said his conversation with Whitaker-Smith struck him profoundly, but he was at first reluctant to share it with his wife, Marybeth Smith, when he got home from work that night.
For many years, the Smiths had struggled with infertility as they tried to have a child of their own.
They also became foster parents in hopes of adopting a child, but left that dream behind nearly six years prior after a trio of siblings they fostered for nearly one year were returned to their biological parents.
Marybeth Smith told "GMA" that when her husband finally opened up about his interaction with a student at school, Whitaker-Smith, she knew it wasn't a topic he was taking lightly.
"This was something that, obviously, he felt pretty passionate about because I'm sure she's not the only kid that he has dealt with who has been in a similar situation," she said. "So something about Raven was special to him, and obviously I trusted him."
In the following days and weeks, the Smiths began exploring the idea of fostering Whitaker-Smith. They said they first reached out to her case worker and then went through the process of getting recertified as foster parents.
Once they were approved as foster parents, the Smiths opened their home to Whitaker-Smith, who moved in with them in June 2015.
"It was really weird at first because, in my mind, I thought of [Jason Smith] as the bad guy because I was always getting in trouble," Whitaker-Smith recalled. "But then for my first weekend visitation, they made me feel extremely welcome, like I was already in the family. They got everything that I needed without even knowing that I would be there forever. They just did it."
Whitaker-Smith said at the time, given her age and her history, she thought of the Smiths as another temporary foster family. Looking back now though, she said she "always knew" that they would be her parents.
Likewise, the Smiths said that Whitaker-Smith immediately "brought purpose" to their lives, even as she admittedly struggled at times to accept their consistency and love.
"I gave them a bunch of trouble to see what would happen," Whitaker-Smith recalled of her early time with the Smiths. "I kind of tested whether or not this was real or not to see if they would keep me no matter what, because they would tell me that but, you know, I'd heard that a lot before ... I wanted to just challenge and see if they were really willing to accept me."
Marybeth Smith said she and her husband were not surprised by the push-back they received at times from Whitaker-Smith.
"She had been let down by all the adults in her life, so why would she trust us," Marybeth Smith said. "We were just two complete strangers to her at first."
In addition to overcoming emotional challenges, the Smiths also helped Whitaker-Smith overcome the lack of structure and learning she faced in her early years. Whitaker-Smith said she learned everything from routines like taking a shower and brushing her teeth daily with the Smiths, to working her way up from being on a third-grade reading level at age 11 to being on par with her classmates in high school.
"She was willing to do all that extra work," Marybeth Smith said of the hours her daughter put in after school and over many summers. "It wasn't just us pushing her. She saw the benefit in education and wanting to better herself, so she was willing to stay after school."
Together, the family of three overcame the odds. On Nov. 3, 2017, the Smiths formally adopted Whitaker-Smith, by then a high school freshman.
Four years later, Whitaker-Smith was accepted to the University of Kentucky, where she is now a junior studying social work, a major that she said was inspired by her own life.
Marybeth Smith recalled that when Whitaker-Smith took her first class as a social work major, she called her parents and told them, "I'm where I'm supposed to be."
"I need to choose something that I'm passionate about," Whitaker-Smith said. "It feels really cool to tell my other classmates that I was in the system, and then they go and they tell their friends and everyone else about my story."
As part of her course work, Whitaker-Smith shared her story publicly in an essay to mark National Adoption Month, which is celebrated annually in November to "raise awareness about adoption issues," according to the U.S. Children's Bureau.
In 2021, the most recent data available, nearly 400,000 kids in the U.S. spent time in the foster care system, according to the Children's Bureau. In Kentucky, where the Smiths live, over 8,000 children are currently waiting for a foster to adoptive parent, according to the DCCH Center for Children and Families, a nonprofit organization that helped facilitate Whitaker-Smith's foster care with the Smiths.
"If you had told 11-year-old me that I would be a junior in college, she would have laughed you off the planet. Being in foster care completely changed my life," Whitaker-Smith wrote in her essay, adding, "Being fostered by a great set of parents did not erase my trauma, but they provided me with an atmosphere where I learned how to work through it, believe in myself, and give hope to a hopeless kid."
The Smiths said they hope sharing their story will help encourage other people to step us as foster and adoptive parents.
"I really believe there are no bad children," Jason Smith said. "Children are a product of their environment and the people who raise them, or who don't raise them unfortunately, so given the right opportunity, given the proper support, love and affection, all children can be successful."
Marybeth Smith said she feels all the time the joy that Whitaker-Smith has brought to her and her husband's lives, a joy that is especially evident during the holiday season.
"We might have put up one [Christmas] tree before Raven ... almost out of obligation," Marybeth Smith said. "But she's made the holidays worth celebrating and we now have not one tree but like 10 trees in the house ... we have a mantle full of stockings."
She continued, "We just love her so much."